Thursday, February 18, 2010

Chase Po-la-cek = Ho-bey Ba-ker?

The buzz surrounding junior forward Chase Polacek, of late, has been of his potential candidacy for the Hobey Baker Award, hockey's equivalent to football's Heisman Trophy. The buzz only grows louder when he has a weekend such as the one he had in eastern New England, where he put up 5 goals in 2 games, including a natural hat trick against Dartmouth.

The Hobey field, at this point, is wide open and is cause for rampant speculation. Ask two experts for 10 names, and you might get three or four that are the same. Polacek is, of course, on my list. Although I'm sure there's some blind homerism to it, I do believe there's legitimate reason for him to be considered.

My list of 10, in no particular order: F Chase Polacek, jr, RPI; D Brendan Smith, jr, Wisconsin; F Rhett Rakhshani, sr, Denver; G Marc Cheverie, jr, Denver; G Cody Reichard, so, Miami; F Bobby Butler, sr, New Hampshire; F Gustav Nyquist, so, Maine; F Cory Conacher, jr, Canisius; F Blake Geoffrion, sr, Wisconsin; F Corey Tropp, jr, Michigan State.

I'm not going to fully break down the Hobey race here for a couple of reasons. First, like I mentioned, the field is wide open. Second, there are a lot of candidates just on my list to go over, and I'm not looking to get into detail. Finally, I'm not sure Polacek has a better than average chance of actually winning the Hobey.

Why is that? History, mostly. No ECAC player has won the Hobey in over 20 years - the last one was Harvard's Lane MacDonald in 1989, the year the Crimson won the national championship.

Only three Hobey winners have played for teams that did not reach the NCAA Tournament: Minnesota-Duluth's Chris Marinucci in 1994, Bowling Green's Brian Holzinger in 1995, and Denver's Matt Carle in 2006. Of the three, only Marinucci played for a team that was not one of the best in his conference (he scored 61 points on a sub-.500 team) - in fact, Carle had played on back-to-back national championship teams prior to winning the Hobey.

I don't have to tell you - right now, the Engineers are going to need to win the ECAC Tournament to be an NCAA team.

But Polacek does have some things going for him. At present, he's the national scoring leader, and 8 of the last 10 national scoring leaders have been on the list of 10 nominees for the Hobey that comes out in March - the caveat being that one of the two who were not nominees was last year's leader also from the ECAC, Quinnipiac's Bryan Leitch. The national lead in goal scoring, which Polacek currently shares, has also garnered a nomination in 8 of the last 10 seasons. Another strong point is that Polacek seems to be one of the favorites for ECAC Player of the Year. Since 1998, only two players who were named Player of the Year of one of the "Big Four" conferences have failed to earn a Hobey Baker nomination. Both were goaltenders, one was a freshman, the other shared his league POTY nod, and neither were from the ECAC.

USCHO's Elliot Olshansky looked into what boils down to the "clutchiness" of points scored by some of the potential Hobey candidates, using a system developed for NHL analysis by The Hockey News. What it does is determine how often a player helps his team score crucial goals - the first goal of the game, a goal that produces a lead, a goal that produces the last lead, a goal that starts a comeback, and goals in overtime. Goals get a full point, assists get a half point.

Guess who, among a laundry list of candidates, is at the top in producing these "clutch" goals? Without much fanfare from Olshansky - it's Chase Polacek.

Now, that doesn't suddenly vault Polacek into #1 contender status, but it does underscore what might be some degree of separation from a player like Leitch who was not nominated for the Hobey.

I do believe Chase should be on the list of 10 nominees when all is said and done. I don't believe he's got a good chance of actually winning the award. Playing in the ECAC does put you behind the eight-ball when it comes to being recognized by the people who vote on the award (a combination of coaches and writers - don't be fooled by the fan vote, 1% means the fan vote counts less than a single vote from any of the slate of voters). Despite his very solid numbers, he'll have to be phenomenal in the next few weeks - we're talking Tournament MVP on top of taking the POTY, which would probably place RPI in the national tournament - in order to have a chance at being the first non-Crimson ECAC player to hoist the Hobey. Even that might not be enough. Remember, Adam Oates lost out to UMD's Bill Watson in 1985, and some of that has to do with regionalism with the voters.

The truth is, players like Rakhshani (who I consider the odds-on favorite) and Butler, although their numbers aren't as high as Polacek's, are going to get credit for playing on top teams and in tougher leagues. The argument will be, and perhaps rightfully so, that Rakhshani's numbers would be much higher in the ECAC, while Polacek's would probably be much lower in the WCHA. It's a fair cop - the WCHA's a much tougher league than the ECAC, and putting up the numbers that Rakhshani, Geoffrion, and Smith have done there is probably more impressive, even if they aren't the national scoring leaders (although Smith leads in national scoring for defensemen).

Let's make it even easier. Conacher is right up there with Polacek in the national scoring race, but he plays in Atlantic Hockey. Polacek is getting more attention than Conacher, partially because the ECAC is considered an advanced league from AHA. Same as the comparison of Polacek and Rakhshani.

It's fun to chant "HO-BEY BA-KER!" when Polacek does his thing out there, and he's definitely earned the praise. Actually taking the Hobey will be another thing altogether.

But still... you should go vote for him anyway.


There's another national award out there that I do think an RPI player has a shot at, and it's one that hasn't gotten much press yet since it's relatively brand new. The National Rookie of the Year Award was first handed out when this year's seniors were freshmen, so there have only been three winners - St. Cloud State forward Andreas Nodl in 2007, Colorado College goaltender Richard Bachman in 2008, and Boston University goaltender Kieran Millan in 2009.

This time I will go over the candidates, since it's a much shorter list - and I think there are fewer arguments with who comprises that list.

F Brandon Pirri, RPI
Pirri's resume is really simple. He's got the numbers. Second leading scorer in the ECAC (behind a teammate that he doesn't play on the same line with), fifth in the nation in assists per game, and he leads the nation in rookie scoring with 39 points, including a ridiculous lead of 8 in rookie assists. The only forward to win the award, Nodl, was also the national leader in rookie scoring who scored at a similar clip. If there's a knock, it's that too many of his points - 30 - come from assists, but we know from watching him that opposing teams who try to lock him down from scoring tend to open up his linemates - notably, Marty O'Grady - for putting it in the net, something which he himself can do very nicely when he's got space to operate.

F Stephane Da Costa, Merrimack
Da Costa is the best player on his team in any class. His 35 points so far this year already represents the highest scoring season for the Warriors in well over a decade. Merrimack practically always is out of the Hockey East playoff race at this point in the season, and while the Warriors don't currently sit in a playoff position, they are right within striking distance and it is largely thanks to Da Costa's addition. He has four fewer points than Pirri, but has played seven fewer games, which means he actually leads the nation in rookie points per game.

F Jordan George, Bemidji State
George's candidacy revolves around the fact that he is probably the freshman with the most contributions on a top team nationally, which, like the Hobey Baker "requirements" listed above, really can't be overlooked. He's right up there with the national rookie leaders with 30 points (as one of only three, with Pirri and Da Costa, who have reached 30 already), which puts him second, trailing only junior Matt Read's 32 points, on a Beaver team sitting 5th in the Pairwise and loaded with players who played in the Frozen Four last season. That's impressive.

F Jerry D'Amigo, RPI
Much like his ECAC Rookie of the Year candidacy, D'Amigo's appearance on this list is a function of his rock star status as one of the leaders of the World Junior Championship backed by some very solid numbers that place him among the best freshmen in the nation at the same time. Among voters, that two weeks in Saskatoon sticks out in the mind even though it really shouldn't count for a college hockey award. The knock on D'Amigo is that he's been with some quality linemates all year, practically always playing with Pirri or Polacek, and even with Derek Stepan and Danny Kristo in Canada. He's right there in the rookie scoring race, though, with 28 points.

F Andy Taranto, Alaska
The Nanooks are making noise in the CCHA this season and it is thanks in no small part to Andy Taranto, who is probably the top freshman in a top league on a solid team that leads his team in scoring, the way Nodl was when he won the award in 2007. Taranto is just ahead of D'Amigo in fourth place in rookie scoring with 29 points and figures to play a key role in Alaska's fortunes coming down the stretch as the Nanooks look to land their first ever NCAA tournament bid.

F Danny Kristo, North Dakota
My list was missing something - a WCHA rookie. Considering that 2 of the 3 NROTY winners have been from the WCHA and that it's by and large the top league in the nation (if the NCAA tournament started today, there would be 6 of 10 WCHA teams playing in it), I needed a candidate from out west and Kristo is that candidate. As mentioned, he played on the top line at the WJC with D'Amigo and he's been a solid rookie forward for the Fighting Sioux as well. He's a little behind in the rookie scoring race, but again, he plays in a tough league and he's had to be there for UND this season. His eye for the net puts him ahead of league-mates Craig Smith of Wisconsin and Rylan Schwartz of Colorado College.

No goalies? Nope. While the last two Rookies of the Year - and two of the three total - have been goaltenders, none of this year's crop are approaching the lofty standards set by Bachman or Millan during their freshman seasons. Notre Dame's Mike Johnson has some of the best save percentage and GAA numbers among freshman netminders, but nowhere near what Bachman or Millan posted - and his winning percentage is at .500. Union's Keith Kincaid is the inverse; great winning percentage, but more pedestrian numbers. CC's Joe Howe is the same way. Both of them are in front of good offensive teams.

No defensemen either? They were a bit closer. I almost added Denver's Matt Donovan and Northeastern's Jake Newton, but I'm not sure either one is on the level with the top talents listed here.

I held back from listing American International's Adam Pleskach, who leads the nation in rookie goals with 14 - two of which were against RPI. He's by far the best player on his team, but AIC is the second weakest team in the weakest conference in the nation (bailed out from their traditional role of last place by UConn). I can't, in good conscience, place him with players like those listed. Harvard's Louis Leblanc was also considered and passed on - while he has 10 goals and 10 assists, he had only 1 assist in Harvard's 7 non-conference games, all of which they lost. While he may yet be a top candidate for ECAC Rookie of the Year, he's toast for national honors.

Who is it? I've got a feeling, deep down, that George and Taranto are the favorites, but I'm definitely not counting out Pirri and Da Costa, or a star turn from D'Amigo or Kristo.


Finally, a quick look at the Patty Kazmaier Award, which is the women's version of the Hobey. Senior defenseman Laura Gersten and junior goaltender Sonja van der Bliek are, to my knowledge, the first Engineers ever nominated for the Kazmaier, but the list of nominees isn't restricted to 10 as it is for the Hobey - there are 45 total nominees this year.

Do either of them have a shot? For both, it's really just an honor to be nominated. It would be difficult to see Gersten, as a defenseman, chosen over Cornell's Laura Fortino, New Hampshire's Courtney Birchard, St. Lawrence's Britni Smith, or Minnesota's Anne Schleper.

Similarly, for van der Bliek, there's Noora Räty of Minnesota, a freshman who's got an unheard of GAA of 0.80 (16 goals allowed in 20 games) and a ridiculous save percentage of .967 (those 16 goals coming on 489 shots faced). Aside from Harvard's Christina Kessler, Sonja actually has some of the better numbers among nominated goaltenders and she's been a major part of RPI's success this season, but I'm not sure how one would be able to justify giving the Kazmaier to any goaltender but Räty.

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